Thanksgiving Day

Today’s readings: Isaiah 63:7-9 | Psalm 113 | Colossians 3:12-17 | Luke 10:17-24

Back in seminary, during the last summer before I was ordained a priest, I did my Clinical Pastoral Education at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove.  It’s a level one trauma center, so it’s a busy place with a lot of, well, trauma.  In C.P.E., we were placed in a group with other students, so we are all learning pastoral skills and processing pastoral experiences together.  I had a very good, but challenging time in that program.  I was assigned to the emergency room, along with a cardiac floor, so let’s just say it was never boring!  But it wasn’t boring for any of my peers either; that summer there were an unusually large number of traumatic deaths that we each had to deal with.

During one of our prayer and reflection times, we read the last two lines of the Gospel we just heard: “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.  For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”  Our reflection was that, in the midst of all the chaos and trauma, we had indeed seen some incredible moments of grace: family reconciliations, selfless service to others in need, families coming together to support each other.  Those moments were really holy ones, and blessed were our eyes indeed for having the privilege to see them.

These days, as a pastor of this little country parish, as Bishop Conlon likes to joke with me about, there’s always something going on.  What’s broken today?  What’s going on in the school that needs love and attention?  Which staff member is going through difficult life stuff that needs me to support them?  What meeting do I have to go to or even run?  What conflict needs resolving?  I’m almost never bored, as I’m sure you can imagine!

One evening, after a long day of meetings that culminated with a wonderful Parish Pastoral Council meeting, I went back to the rectory and finished folding my laundry.  I picked up some bed clothes, looking forward to relaxing a few minutes, finishing my prayers for the day, and going to bed.  At that very moment, I got a call for an anointing.  So I got in the car, and headed out, and anointed the loved one of one of our parishioners.  As I was praying with them, I reflected how very grateful I was, even though exhausted, to be there.  That they trusted me enough to reach out in their need was a privilege, and the opportunity to support them one of the worst days of their lives was a great grace to me.  I could have been bitter that I didn’t get my moments of relaxation, but instead I was overwhelmed by the grace of the moment.  I was thankful, as I always am, for being a pastor of this little country parish!

Some of you know that in the past month or so, my mother had been very ill.  We eventually figured out what was going on and she’s very much on the mend.  But my sisters and I were spending a lot of time at the hospital, talking with doctors, and taking care of all the stuff that happens when a loved one is ill.  On the way home from the hospital one night, I said to my sister Sharon, “This has all been so exhausting.  But I’m so grateful we have our mother to take care of.”  She said she had been thinking the exact same thing.  Blessed were our eyes to be able to look on our mother and care for her, just as she had so often cared for us.

We could all tell similar stories.  The grace is there, sometimes hidden in the craziness of life, but for eyes blessed to see it, there are moments for which to be thankful.  Many of them.  Every day.  Because gratitude is a decision, not a feeling.  We can decide to be bitter and resentful for all that life throws at us.  Or we can be Eucharistic people – people of gratitude – grateful for the grace that sustains us when everything is falling apart.  Grateful for the moments of blessing that are happening even in the hardest situations.  Grateful for the people and the community that we get to walk with through this crazy life.  Grateful for the relationship with God who gives us, always, way more than we give him, freely, unconditionally, abundantly, undeservedly.

I think we all know a little about how Thanksgiving started.  We learned in school that the pilgrims gathered in the autumn of 1621 after a year in the New World.  It was a year of rich harvests, and their gathering was a feast of giving thanks to God for what he had done for them.  They were thankful because they had survived.

But Peter Fleck, a Unitarian minister, suggested some years ago that maybe that wasn’t it at all.  Maybe what was really true was that they survived because they were thankful.  Think about it, that year could not have been an easy one for them.  They were in a new land, vastly different from what they had been used to.  They had grown crops they weren’t used to and survived disease.  After all of that harrowing experience, they were still grateful.  Maybe that “attitude of gratitude” was why they survived.

Saint Paul had that notion, I think, in our second reading today.  Writing to the Colossians, he is telling them how to survive as people of faith.  He challenges them to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient and forgiving.  He tells them to love one another and be peaceful people.  And then he shows them were it all begins: “And be thankful.”

Notice how he says it.  He wasn’t asking them to feel thankful.  He told them to be thankful.  As I have already mentioned, gratitude is a decision, not an emotion.  Grateful people choose to look for the blessing in everyday life, even in hard times, and they thank God for that.  Grateful people choose to look for God’s presence in the midst of darkness, and thank him for walking with them on the journey.  They don’t wait to be grateful for winning the lottery or landing the big account at work or getting that promotion they were hoping for.  Instead, they seize the opportunity to be thankful for being.  They are thankful for having the presence of God on the journey.

As Catholics, we are a people who constantly choose to be grateful.  Our Eucharist is the Thanksgiving feast par excellence.  Every time we gather to celebrate Mass, we remember that God in his infinite mercy sent his only Son to be our Savior.  He came into our world and walked among us, filling the earth with his most merciful presence.  He journeyed among us, a man like us in all things but sin.  His great love led him to bear the cross for our sake, dying the death we so richly deserved for our many sins.  And then he did the greatest thing possible: he burst out of the grave, breaking the chains of death, and rose to new life.  Because of this grace, we have the possibility of everlasting life with God, the life we were created for in the first place.

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember this awesome mystery.  Not only that, our Eucharist brings us to the hour of that grace, giving us once again a share in its blessing.  As a Eucharistic people, we Catholics are a people of gratitude.  That’s what defines us.

So how would a people defined by gratitude celebrate this Thanksgiving day?  Certainly we have made the best possible start: gathering for the Eucharist to give thanks for the presence of God and the grace he pours out on us.  Then we take that grace to our families’ own Thanksgiving feasts and beyond.  As we gather around the table today, maybe we can stop to reflect on God’s magnificent presence in our lives – in good times and in bad.  And then use that gratitude to make the world an awesome place – or at least your corner of it!

Gratitude is contagious – in a good way!  When we make it a constant spiritual practice to reflect on how God has blessed us, when we take the time to thank someone for something little they did that made us smile, when we show our gratitude by reaching out in service to others, others can become grateful people too.  A watching world looks at us Catholics to see if we really are who we say we are.  When we live as grateful people, our Eucharist is authentic and our witness is exhilarating.

Like those pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving, maybe our gratitude can become the source of our survival through the hard times and the source of our joy in the good times.  Maybe we can not just survive, but actually thrive, because we are grateful people.  May we never cease to sing the praise of God and to cry out in songs of thanks and praise!

Monday of the Thirty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Very often, when we hear this story about the widow’s mite, the story is equated with the call to stewardship. That’s a rather classic explanation of the text. And there’s nothing wrong with that explanation. But honestly, I don’t think the story about the widow’s mite is about stewardship at all. Yes, it’s about treasure and giving and all of that. But what kind of treasure? Giving what?

I think to get the accurate picture of what’s going on here, we have to ask why the Church would give us this little vignette at the end of the Church year, in the very last week of Ordinary Time. That’s the question I found myself asking when I looked at today’s readings. Well, first of all, it’s near the end of Luke’s Gospel so that may have something to do with it. But I think there’s a reason Luke put it at the end also. I mean, in the very next chapter we are going to be led into Christ’s passion and death, so why pause this late in the game to talk about charitable giving?

Obviously, the widow’s mite means something other than giving of one’s material wealth. Here at the end of the Church year, we are being invited to look back on our lives this past year and see what we have given. How much of ourselves have we poured out for the life of faith? What have we given of ourselves in service? What has our prayer life been like? Have we trusted Jesus to forgive our sins by approaching the Sacrament of Penance? Have we resolved to walk with Christ in good times and in bad? In short, have we poured out everything we have, every last cent, every widow’s mite, for our life with Christ? Or have we held something back, giving merely of our surplus wealth?

In this last week of the Church year, we have to hear the widow telling us that there is something worth giving everything for, and that something is our relationship with Christ.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Today’s readings

I wonder if this solemnity of Christ the King is one to which many people can relate.  In our American society, so many people don’t recognize or accept any authority outside of their own personal opinion of what is okay, let alone grasp the concept of a monarchical, top-down method of government.

And even if we were looking for a king, what kind of king is this?  Our gospel reading today presents a picture of a king who, objectively speaking, seems to be rather a failure.  This is not a king who lived in a lavish palace and expected the blind obedience of all those around him.  This is not a king who held political office, or led a great army.  His message has always been quite different than that, and now today, look at him hanging on the cross between two hardened criminals.  That one of them thinks to ask Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom is almost laughable, but, well, there it is.   There is our king.  This feast leaves us on the very last Sunday of the Church year with more questions than, it would seem, could ever possibly be answered.

This wasn’t the kind of thing the Jews were expecting, of course. They had long been expecting an Anointed One, but never one like this. Their whole picture of a Messiah had been one of political greatness and military strength, one who would restore the sovereignty of Israel and reestablish Jerusalem as the great political and religious city that it had once been. That was the Messiah they were looking for, but what they got was one who was so much of a suffering servant that he ended up on a cross. Pilate’s inscription, “This is the king of the Jews” was sarcastic and completely offensive to them, which of course is exactly what he intended.

So it’s easy to see why the Jews might not have noticed that this one was their king. It’s easy enough to even see why they would have chosen to ignore his kingship. But we can’t miss it: we have heard the Word proclaimed all year long and we know that this is the way that God chose to save the world. There are times, of course, when we could do with a bit more opulence and certainly a lot less suffering. But Jesus is the king of our reality, not of our fantasy, and so he is not ashamed to herald the cross as the gateway to the kingdom and the instrument of our salvation.

And we have to admit that we are a people who need a king like this. We might want a king to give us greatness and rest from our enemies, but that’s not real. What’s real is our suffering, whether it’s illness, or grief, or job dissatisfaction, or personal troubles, or family strife, or broken relationships, or any other calamity. Suffering happens, and that’s why Jesus chose the image of the Suffering Servant as the motif of his kingship. St. Paul says today in our second reading from his letter to the Colossians that “in him all things hold together.” Even when the world seems to be falling apart for us, we can trust in the Suffering Servant to walk with us and hold everything together.

And so, as preposterous as it may sound to others, we know that Christ is our King.  His Kingship, he says in another gospel, is not of this world.  No, he was not a king who came with great fanfare, oppressing peoples and putting down vast armies.  No, he was not the king who restored Israel to the Davidic monarchy that began in this morning’s first reading.  His power was not exercised over the political forces of this world, as much as it was exercised over the power of evil in the world.  He is the King who conquered, once and for all, the things that really plague us: evil, sin and death.  His Kingdom was not defined by his mortal life, but in fact begins just after he gives up that mortal life.  Unlike earthly kings, his power is everlasting.

In 1925, Pope Pius XI, in the face of rising nationalism and Fascism, instituted the Feast of Christ the King to reassert Christ’s sovereignty over all forms of political governance.  Jesus Christ is not just one king among others, but rather he is the King of kings and Lord of lords.  Perhaps, if this feast had been instituted today, our Church might be reasserting Christ’s sovereignty over all powers of cynicism, relativism, and apathy.  Jesus Christ our King is, as he says in another place, “the way, the truth, and the life” and there is no other way to the Father, no other way to the kingdom, no other way to life eternal than to take up our cross and follow our King through the sadness of sin and brokenness, through the pain of death, to the glory of his kingdom.  And so we have to say with boldness and conviction on this day that one religion isn’t as good as another; that it’s not okay to skip Mass to go to your child’s basketball game; that Sunday isn’t just a day to sleep in, or shop the malls, but rather a day to worship our King who is the only One who can give us what we really yearn for; what this life is all about.

And so this is how we wrap up our Church year.  Next week we begin anew, the first Sunday of Advent.  On this last Sunday of the year, it makes sense that we stop for a minute, and look back at the year gone by.  How has it been for us?  Have we grown in faith?  Have we been able to reach out to the poor and needy?  Has our faith really taken root in our lives, have we been people who witness to the truth with integrity and conviction and fearlessness?  Have we put our King first in our lives or have we been worshipping false gods, attaching our hopes to impotent kings, recognizing false powers, and wandering off the path to life?

If we have been lax about our faith this year, if we have given ourselves to relativism and apathy, then this is the time to get it right.  On this eve of the Church’s new year, perhaps we might make new year’s resolutions to worship our King in everything we say and everything we do.  Because nothing else is acceptable, and anything less is offensive to our King who gained his Kingship at the awesome price of his own precious life that we might be able to live with him in his kingdom.  Maybe we can resolve to get to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of obligation, not just when it works out in our schedule, and including those times when we travel (there are Catholic churches pretty much everywhere).  Or perhaps we can resolve to reinvigorate our prayer lives, making time every single day to connect with our Lord, to remember our Sunday worship, to seek his guidance in all our endeavors and plans, to strive to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom in the quiet moments of our prayer.  And certainly we must resolve to live the Gospel in its fullness: to reach out to the poor and needy, to live lives of integrity as we participate in our work and in our communities, to love every person God puts in our path.  On this “new Church year’s eve” we must resolve to be followers of the King in ways that proclaim to a cynical and apathetic, yet watching world, that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords and that there is absolutely no other.

Our prayer on this glorious Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King must be the prayer of Saint Dismas, the “good thief” as he hung upon the cross: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!” Pray that with me in song…

Saint Cecilia, Virgin Martyr

Today’s readings

I’m sure we have some musicians here in church today: whether you play an instrument or sing, this is your feast day, because today we celebrate Saint Cecilia, a virgin and martyr who is the patron saint of musicians.  Because she is a martyr, we also remember those people of faith throughout history who have been persecuted for their faith, have given their lives for the faith, and have triumphed for the faith.

In today’s first reading, Judas Maccabeus and his brothers are celebrating that triumph.  Their people had been sorely oppressed and the temple was destroyed.  But Judas and his brothers led an opposition that overtook their enemies, and when they sent their enemies packing, they fixed up the temple.  In today’s reading, they rededicated the sanctuary and celebrated that God helped them to triumph over their Gentile enemies.

Saint Cecilia was a force for good among those who knew her.  She worked hard to convert her husband and his brother to the faith.  She was successful, and they were so strong in the faith that they also were martyred, just before she was.  All of them refused to give up the faith and all of them triumphed in heaven.  

And of course, it is Jesus who makes the triumph possible.  As he refused to stop preaching the truth, his enemies, as our Gospel reading today shows us, will stop at nothing to silence him.  Obviously, we know they were not ultimately successful: indeed Christ’s paschal mystery is the ultimate triumph: as he gave his life for us on the Cross, he triumphed over sin and death to give us the possibility of life forever in heaven.

It is said that as Saint Cecilia was being tortured and put to death, she sang a song of joy in her heart.  She was joyful because she knew that death would not be the end; her Lord made that very clear to her and she believed in it with all her heart.  We, too are called to sing a song of joy in our hearts, in every moment of our lives.  In good times and bad, we know that we will triumph if we trust in Jesus, and that is certainly enough reason for us to sing for joy!

The Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel can be a confusing one, perhaps even a little difficult to hear.  It’s very disconcerting to see Jesus as being callous to his mother and not receiving her when she came to visit.  But our gut – or rather our faith – tells us that Jesus and Mary had a relationship that transcended that kind of thing.  It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t care about Mary; it’s just that he knew he really didn’t have to worry about her.  She had been filled with grace from the moment of her conception, and would never be without the benefit of that grace.

Theirs was a relationship in which Jesus instinctively knew that his mother was okay and he needed to attend more to the people he ministered.  And it is for that reason we celebrate Mary’s presentation today.  As with Mary’s birth, we don’t really know anything official about Mary’s presentation in the temple.  An unhistorical account tells us that her parents, Anna and Joachim, offered Mary to God in the Temple when she was three years old.  This was to carry out a promise made to God when Anna was still childless.

Though it cannot be proven historically, Mary’s presentation has an important theological purpose.  It continues the impact of the feasts of the Immaculate Conception and of the birth of Mary.  It emphasizes that the holiness conferred on Mary from the beginning of her life on earth continued through her early childhood and beyond.  We celebrate Mary, full of grace from the moment of her conception and all throughout her life.

We pray the words of Mary in the Responsorial Psalm today: “The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.”  Mary was always aware of the amazing grace that sustained her throughout her own very difficult life-long mission.  We are graced like that too, and we celebrate that grace with Mary today.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God; that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Saturday of the Thirty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You know, this Gospel reading is filled with all sorts of off-putting comments, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I bristle at the thought of comparing God to a dishonest judge! But that’s not the point here. Of course, Jesus means that God is so much greater than the dishonest judge, that if the dishonest judge will finally relent to someone pestering him, how much more will God, who loves us beyond anything we can imagine, how much more will he grant the needs of this children who come to him in faith?

But people have trouble with this very issue all the time. Because I am sure that almost all of us have been in the situation where we have prayed and prayed and prayed and nothing seems to happen. But we can never know the reason for God’s delay. Maybe what we ask isn’t right for us right now – or ever. Maybe something better is coming our way, or at least something different. Maybe the right answer will position itself in time, through the grace of God at work in so many situations. Most likely, we just don’t have the big picture, which isn’t ours to have, really.

But whatever the reason, the last line of the Gospel today is our key: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” And that’s why we have this particular Gospel reading at this late date in the Church year. As the days of Ordinary Time draw to a close, we find it natural to think of the end of time. We don’t know when the end of time will come; Jesus made that clear – nobody knows but the Father. But when it does come, please God let there be faith on earth. Let that great day find us living our faith and living the Gospel and loving one another.

Friday of the Thirty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So many religious people tend to get concerned about the end of time.  Some years ago, there was a serious of books called Left Behind, and a couple of movies made from them.  The premise was that Jesus returned to take all the faithful people home, and “left behind” everyone else.  It’s a notion known as the rapture, which is not taught by the Catholic Church, because it was never revealed in Scripture or Tradition.  In fact, no Christian denomination taught this until the late nineteenth century, so despite being a popular notion, at least among those who clamored after that series of books, it is not an authentic teaching.

I mention this because you might hear today’s Gospel and think of the rapture.  But Jesus is really talking about the final judgment, which we hear of often in the readings during these waning days of the Church year.  In the final judgment, we will all come before the Lord, both as nations and as individuals.  Here those who have made a decision to respond to God’s gifts of love and grace will be saved, and those who have rejected these gifts will be left to their own devices, left to live outside God’s presence for eternity.

So concern about when this will happen – which Jesus tells us nobody knows – is a waste of time.  Instead, we have to be concerned about responding to God’s gift and call in the here-and-now.  The first reading from the book of Wisdom warns us to be attentive to this: “All men were by nature foolish who were in ignorance of God…”

The day of our Lord’s return will indeed take us all by surprise.  We’ll all be doing what we do; let’s just pray that we’re all doing what we’re supposed to do: living our call as disciples.

Thursday of the Thirty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Let’s be honest; we want it to be easy, this spiritual life, this journey to the kingdom.  We look longingly for signs that we’re headed the right way; we want more than anything to know we’ll end up in the right place.  And so we pay attention, sometimes, when people say, “Look, there he is,” or “Look, here he is.”  We let ourselves get distracted by people who seem important or things that promise some kind of easy comfort.  But none of that is the Kingdom of God.

In himself, our Jesus has shown that the journey will not be an easy one.  He himself suffered greatly and was even rejected by his own generation.  If the Son of God, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, if even he would embrace suffering and rejection as a pathway to glory, then we have to be ready to do the same.  He never expects us to trod a path that he wouldn’t – didn’t – do himself.  So we need to be ones who embrace the spiritual life, with all its frustrations, suffering, and pain, so that one day we who have joined our sufferings to Christ, might be one with him in glory.

And Jesus points out that this really should be easy; certainly easier than we’re making it.  The Kingdom of God is among us, if we would take the time to observe it, if we would open ourselves up to enter into it.  Even if the Kingdom seems cloaked from our current view, we must not give in to temptation.  We must stay the course, live in the moment, be true to our calling as disciples.  For then we cannot fail to enter into the Kingdom.

Saint Martin of Tours / Veterans Day

Today we have the opportunity to celebrate some heroes.  One hero is today’s saint, Saint Martin of Tours, who was actually a veteran and a fierce defender of our faith.  The other heroes are our nation’s veterans, who have fought in wars to protect us and to protect our freedoms.

St. Martin of Tours is a fitting saint to pray for veterans today. His father was a veteran and he himself became a soldier and served his country faithfully, even though that was not what he most wanted to do.  But, at fifteen he entered the army and served under the Emperors Constantius and Julian. While in the service he met a poor, naked beggar at the gates of the city who asked for alms in Christ’s Name. Martin had nothing with him except his weapons and soldier’s mantle; but he took his sword, cut the mantle in two, and gave half to the poor man. During the following night Christ appeared to him clothed with half a mantle and said, “Martin, the catechumen, has clothed me with this mantle!”

During this time, Martin indeed became a catechumen, someone preparing to become a Catholic, and he wanted to focus on doing that. He asked his superiors in the army, “I have served you as a soldier; now let me serve Christ. Give the bounty to those who are going to fight. But I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.” After a time, he asked for and received release from military service. Having received his release, he became a monk and served God faithfully. As a soldier of Christianity now, he fought valiantly against paganism and appealed for mercy to those accused of heresy. He was made a bishop, also not his first choice of things to become, and served faithfully in that post.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month of the year 1918, an armistice was signed, ending the “war to end all wars” – World War I.  November 11 was set aside as Armistice Day in the United States to remember the sacrifices that men and women made during the war in order to ensure a lasting peace. In 1938 Congress voted Armistice Day as a legal holiday, but World War II began the following year. Armistice Day was still observed after the end of the Second World War. In 1953 townspeople in Emporia, Kansas called the holiday Veterans Day in gratitude to the veterans in their town. Soon after, Congress passed a bill renaming the national holiday to Veterans Day. Today, we remember those who have served for our country in the armed forces in our prayers.

On this Veterans Day, we honor and pray for veterans of our armed forces who have given of themselves in order to protect our country and its freedoms. We pray especially for those who have died in battle, as well as for those who have been injured physically or mentally during their military service. We pray in thanksgiving for all of our freedoms, gained at a price, and pray that those freedoms will always be part of our way of life.  St. Martin of Tours, pray for our veterans!

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